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Universes

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That PS Publishing have chosen to collect the short fiction of Stephen Baxter and Paul McAuley in two separate volumes both published in March of this year is awkwardly fitting. Two of the leading actors on the British SF scene for more than a quarter of a century, Baxter's and McAuley’s work has long been in step: McAuley's first story was published in 1984, Baxter's in 1987. But the organs in which those first sallies into the genre appeared—Asimov's and Interzone respectively—emphasize one of the crucial differences between these two contemporaries: whereas Baxter fits quite comfortably in a British lineage extending from H. G. Wells onwards, McAuley's work has often seemed to speak in a mid-Atlantic accent, particularly in its more militaristic aspects.

The first of many oddities about these two volumes, then, is that McAuley's collection is entitled A Very British History. Only one of its stories, "The Choice," takes place on the Atlantic Archipelago; more broadly, the characteristics of a certain kind of British SF—in particular a preference for the cosmological scale—seem rather to elbow out anything so parochial as Englishness. In this, the title of Baxter's volume—Universes—might seem more appropriate, if so expansive as to be emptily vague. In fact, however, Universes is by far the more limited collection, and in the course of its eight stories locates five of its narratives squarely in an England almost willfully costumey.

In part, this unexpected contrast between the two collections is a function of their different purpose. Where A Very British History is sub-titled "The best science fiction stories of Paul McAuley, 1985–2011," Universes is simply a raggedy compendium of errata and spin-offs. "In common with many science fiction writers, the universes I invent and inhabit tend to sprawl over several books and short stories," Baxter explains in his introduction (p. vii). Only one of the stories in Universes is previously unpublished, but none have the air of career-defining excursions in the way of the chronological contents table in the McAuley.

Take the first story in Universes. Entitled "Earth II," it is the opening installment of the strongest section of the book, which expands on Baxter's novels of climactic catastrophe, Flood (2008) and Ark (2009). The section's three stories are separated by centuries from the events of that duology, in which a remnant of humanity escapes from a flooded Earth on a generation starship, and each is in turn separated by millennia from the other. To watch Baxter practice his future history techniques in so compressed a pagecount is something of a privilege: in "Earth II," Xaia, the warrior wife of the planet's prevaricating male governor, quests across a technologically backward world in search of the remains of the Dead, a previous civilization rumored to predate the arrival of humanity (which has itself been mythologized and festishized by a state-sanctioned religion). The fifty-two pages of quest narrative include betrayals, murders, and turnarounds in quick succession, and Xaia ends the story certain that history—and myth—are no guide to creating a present or a future: "Forget the Dead, and the billions who died on the Earth. Their memory crushes us, as if we are no more than moss on the feet of a statue. . . . History doesn't matter," she says (p. 52).

Baxter does not quite concur. In the third of these stories, "Earth I," we rejoin the human diaspora eons hence, and discover that the "Xaian normalisation" rampaged across the known worlds, destroying all trace of the past to ruinous and vandalous effect: those who survive have filled the vacuum of their ignorance with a theology which holds that every civilization, and each individual, are artefacts of a impossibly complex simulation. "The idea that all of humanity emanates from one single, primal, sacred world is just the kind of mythic element a Sim Designer would build into a fictitious Backstory. It's a good narrative, and so it appeals to us" (p. 112). This is, of course, enjoyably metatextual: the backstory is fictitious, and these characters are the conjurations of a Sim Designer named Stephen Baxter; but encoded in these stories are also the kinds of mythic echoes which underline not the simulated nature of existence but the recursive motivations of the human animal: in "Earth III," for instance, the love triangle and martial spirit of the Iliad is reconfigured on another world, with a new Paris and Menelaus, or Hector and Achilles, fighting over a new Helen ("Khilli's challenge had the whole camp churned up, and Tripp could hear the roars of support, and the clatter of spears" [p. 77]).

When, at the end of this sequential future history, we read that the humans of the original Earth "pushed an extinction wave ahead of them wherever they went" (p. 141), we see the fate of that planet, of the earlier civilizations in both "Earth II" and "Earth III," and the almost suicidal ideologies of "Earth I" ("in the Temples we are taught that almost every human action is fundamentally driven by personal motives" [p. 146]); we also see, of course, Baxter's own pessimism about our species. It's a pessimism McAuley shares, but which is in his own work leavened by a defter control of character and voice. In the second story of A Very British History, "The Temporary King," we meet, for instance, what seems to be a determinedly pre-technological enclave on a ruined Earth of the far future—a similar expansion and fall as occurs in the Flood/Ark stories has also already occurred here—and witness its disruption by a charismatic outsider. "I don't see people," he tells them. "I see animals in the skin of people. Like bears. Bears living in the ruins" (p. 44). In this contempt, he can be taken at times to be talking of the entire human race—but his well-drawn villainy, and the essential goodness of McAuley's beautifully sketched adolescent female narrator, tell against the nihilism of a broken world.

Nevertheless, McAuley, like Baxter, is unconvinced by the case for humanity's ongoing existence, its biological and cultural persistence. He returns regularly to genetic engineering as the only viable future for humanity. In "Gene Wars," a geneticist's inventions transform the world into one in which his wife can "With a flick of her powerful tail . . . [launch] her streamlined body into the sea" (p. 82). In "Prison Dreams" and "Children of the Revolution," meanwhile, humanity has—as readers of McAuley's 1995 novel Fairyland will know—developed gene slaves known as "Dolls" in order to support the lifestyle of a privileged elite; in "Recording Angel" and "All Tomorrow's Parties," on the other hand, we visit the world of McAuley's Confluence novels (1997-1999), a universe populated by a radically altered posthumanity. For both authors, then, the principal characteristic of the Far Future is its essential difference, our irrevocable redundancy—in "Earth I," a small band of humans return to the ancestral planet only to find creatures in the seas with "stubby limbs . . . webbed hand-like front paws . . . flowing hair . .  [and total] mindlessness" (p. 139).

It's a bleak vision on which to close the Flood/Ark future history. But it is also the last truly memorable moment in a collection which very rapidly turns southwards. Baxter tells us, again in his introduction, that his Jones/Bennet stories were inspired by histories of the period in which he grew up, the 1960s; but it is almost impossible not to read them as poor first drafts of The Wheel of Ice, his 2012 Doctor Who novel. The stories' central characters of Doctor Jones (shades, too, of Indiana) and Thelma Bennet (and of Scooby-Doo) come across as barely disguised iterations of the Doctor and one of his companions (most obviously the third Doctor's competent and scientifically minded chum, Liz Shaw). "I'm starting to think you're a very remarkable young man indeed," clips Jones to a passing technological genius in precisely way a Time Lord might pick up an unlikely Mary Sue at a bar (p. 157); in the second of the stories, "Project Herakles," both Doctor Who and Quatermass are referenced explicitly ("We used to eat up Dan Dare and Quatermass at Cambridge" [p. 158]). This is a cuteness too far: all the tweed, plucky working-class heroes and pints of bitter of this oddly nostalgic 1960s—in which Harold Wilson rides into London on the back of a genetically engineered giant and immediately talks the whole of the world out of a momentarily successful coup d'état devised by Cecil King—connive not to provide a sense of place but to conjure a kind of never-never land, which would be grating enough were it not for the constant reliance on heroically flat dialogue:

Winston said, "We're wasting time. We should have been back at the base by now."

"I know, I know," said Thelma. "I'm as frustrated as you are. Are you all right, Mrs Stubbins?"

"Oh, champion. This nice canvas seat Sergeant Grady gave me takes the

weight off me stump—"

"Oh thank heavens, here comes Captain Phillips." (p. 190)

Thank heavens, indeed, for Captain Phillips—were it not the case that this sort of exchange is absolutely typical, and proceeds across all one hundred and thirty pages of the Jones/Bennet duology. We can constructively compare this tone deafness with the best of McAuley:

"This one wants the Moon," the first man said.

"Not tonight, honey," José said. "Come back ten years ago."

A woman leaned an arm on the back of her chair and said, "Let me tell

you something, honey. It's easier to go home than get to the Moon from

here."

"Just about no one goes to the Moon these days," Gold Tooth said.

"It would be easier to get to the Moon on a swan-pulled sledge," the

woman told Little Ilya, "than get a ride here." (pp. 6-7)

This passage is taken from "Little Ilya," the first story in A Very British History—and therefore the earliest which it collects—and already McAuley's control of voice, of how people might really speak, is clear. The child's point of view (which is—genetic engineering again—not quite what it seems) is captured smoothly, and each person who speaks does so differently, and with an attempt at diction. It isn't that McAuley is a literary writer focused squarely on character—far from it, and in stories such as "17," in which a sub-human worker with the titular number for a name is subsumed into an even more brutal and dehumanizing identity in the army ("everything human will be burned away," she is told in a characteristic bit of McAuley futureshock [p. 224]), he is clearly using fiction as a means of illustrating a set of extrapolations. In this, he is not so different to Baxter—indeed, at novel length there is little to separate, despite their radically different epochs, the sketchy spacefarers of McAuley's Gardens of the Sun (2009) from the flattened puzzle-solvers of Baxter's Stone Spring (2010), both of which conjure across their greater length a vivid and compelling mise en scene. Nevertheless, and on the evidence collected by PS, in his short fiction McAuley is able to find space for the kind of evocative color which throws into more satisfying relief your standard-issue sensawunda. Here, for instance, is a passage from "Second Skin," a short story which again revolves around slippery identities, and which is set in the same Quiet War universe as the occasionally gnomic Gardens of the Sun:

"I have an escort."

"Of course you do. I'm sure someone as resourceful as you will think of

something. Ah, this must be your guide. What a tall girl."

Avernus turned away, and her companions closed around her, turning

their long bare backs on the Earthman.

Ben Lo asked Marla what Avernus was doing there. He was dizzy with

the contrast between what his wife had been, and what she had become. He could hardly remember what they had talked about. Meet. They had to

meet. They would meet.

It was beginning. (p. 181)

This isn't Shakespeare, but nor is it "Are you all right, Mrs Stubbins?" McAuley's fiction catches its breath, it lingers just briefly over detail and difference. In the third segment of Universes, on the other hand, we are treated to an alternative history of Anti-Ice, Baxter's 1993 alternative history, in which planet-fallen rocks deliver to the pre-modern world the titular super-conductor. In the stories of Universes, the space debris also delivers an alien invasion. Our narrator is party to a Royal Society rearguard against the extraterrestrial threat, in which he witnesses the death of Jonathan Swift and flees from the scene of Daniel Defoe's ("Damn you, Jack Hobbes!" shrieks the doomed novelist and noted Presbyterian. "Damn you to hell!" [pg. 350]). There is none of the knowing anachronism or compendious verisimilitude here of Neal Stephenson's similarly sited Baroque Cycle. Nor is there the facility and panache of McAuley's "Cross Road Blues," which is based around a governmental time traveling project in an alternative universe in which the bluesman Robert Johnson survived, came to be a noted champion of desegregation, and was instrumental in the battle for civil rights being won twenty years early—at the cost of American isolation during the Second World War, and its subsequent demotion in the big league of world powers. Not everything about this scenario rings true—the British Empire would not have lasted Churchill's thousand years at the close of 1945, as here, whatever the outcome of the war—but there is a real dexterity, and clear enthusiasm, about McAuley's writing which carries the reader through:

Turner knocked the bottle aside and grabbed hold of Johnson's narrow

shoulders. "You have to listen to me, Bobby! You won't come back because they won't let you get there! But if you come with me—"

Johnson shrugged away. "This more of your conjure stuff, Ike? You sayin

you know the future?"

"I know it's a wicked world. Come back with me. Please."

Robert Johnson shrugged. "Don't I know how wicked the world is," he

said. "Listen, I gots to play for these people, then we sit down and we talk." (p. 73)

McAuley's Robert Johnson speaks like a man from the '30s Delta; Baxter's Defoe speaks however he needs to speak to make a fragmented scene work. This is what separates these two collections, and yet McAuley and Baxter are closer in stature than these volumes allow. They have each in many ways led the conversations in British SF for decades, or at least helped perfect them: their concerns have been those of their contemporaries, and in their work these ideas have either been first stated or given particular life. In Gwyneth Jones's recent short story collection, The Universe of Things (2011), for example, we saw the same questions of human identity pored over as are under inspection in "Earth I" or "Recording Angel"; likewise, in Adam Roberts's Adam Robots (2013) we saw the same subversion of militarism as we see in McAuley's "Gene Wars," the same dialogue with Stapledon or Wells in which we can see Baxter engaged (in "Earth I" and, yes, in "Project Hades"). Both men have made their principal impact in this regard through novels which combine multiple novums and boundless imagination (neither, admittedly, can be said in the way of Jones or Roberts to have done so by penning SF-as-literary-art). Nevertheless, with A Very British History McAuley receives as impressive a statement as possible of his short fiction strengths, and it's a compelling argument for his importance to SF over the last thirty years; it is a pity, then, that Universes turns out to be conversely clearer on his contemporary and equal's weaknesses, when they both share so much at each end of that scale.

Dan Hartland blogs at http://thestoryandthetruth.wordpress.com.



Dan Hartland's reviews have appeared for some years at Strange Horizons, as well as in publications such as Vector, Foundation, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He blogs at thestoryandthetruth.wordpress.com.
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